Soltanifar Lays Out ICHHTO Priorities

Travel & Environment Desk
Travel & Environment Desk
Soltanifar Lays Out ICHHTO Priorities
Soltanifar Lays Out ICHHTO Priorities

Iran’s policy is to capitalize on its growing rapprochement with the international community and potential for halal tourism to turn the nascent travel industry into a force that pushes the country out of economic stagnation and puts it on the path to prosperity, Iran’s top tourism official said.

During a wide-ranging interview with Financial Tribune and its sister publication, the Persian daily Donya-e-Eqtesad, Vice President for Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization Masoud Soltanifar discussed the country’s tourism outlook and the government’s future plans.

“Iran has to realize its potential and must become the center of halal tourism for Muslims all over the world,” he said.

Whereas other countries have only recently started paying attention to the lucrative market of halal tourism and invested substantial amounts of money into the sector, Iran has all it needs courtesy of the country’s governing laws, which comply with Islamic teachings.

Soltanifar noted that other countries are still working on launching hotels and airlines in which alcohol is not served and the meat is halal, while Iran has had all of that for 37 years.

The official stressed that Iran has more than 90% of the infrastructure it needs for halal tourism, but conceded that there are shortcomings, such as the lack of recreational facilities for women.

  Visa Waivers for 28 Nations

A working group based in ICHHTO’s headquarters in Tehran and comprising representatives from various ministries, including foreign, intelligence, interior and industries, has been working to waive visa requirements for the citizens of 28 countries.

“Our efforts started to bear results last month when Georgia and Iran abolished the visa regime,” Soltanifar said.

The Foreign Ministry says visa waivers must be issued for countries willing to reciprocate the move, but ICHHTO does not agree.

“Countries that have managed to turn their tourism industry into a major economic force within a decade or two were never particular about reciprocal visa waivers, because they realized early on that unilaterally abolishing visa requirements, combined with strong marketing, helps develop the sector and brings foreign currency into the country,” he said.

Iran has waived visa requirements for the citizens of seven countries, namely Azerbaijan, Syria, Turkey, Georgia, Bolivia, Egypt and Lebanon.

To facilitate the visa process, the organization is set to launch the electronic visa application in the next Iranian year (starting March 20).

  Lodging for Low-Income Families

Most hotels are out of the price range of low-income families and a substantial portion of middle-income households, a problem which the government has reportedly set out to remedy in the new Iranian year.

“Based on an agreement with the Interior Ministry and municipalities, ICHHTO and the ministry will pool resources to set up 70 camping resorts next year,” Soltanifar said.

The resorts will include affordable lodging available for 300,000–500,000 rials ($8.5-$14) per night and basic amenities.

The official added that private investors are welcome to help open such resorts across the country.

  Stronger Ad Campaigns

In the past couple of years, tourism officials have bemoaned a lack of funds to launch TV spots on satellite channels. However, ICHHTO’s budget for the next fiscal year is set to receive a major boost.

“There are other issues besides money that make it difficult for us to run commercials on satellite TV, but hopefully the post-sanctions era will create an atmosphere conducive to our efforts,” Soltanifar said, seemingly unwilling to say with certainty that his organization will run advertisements on satellite channels next year.

On the topic of promoting Iran abroad, he pointed to a list of 40 target countries compiled in collaboration with the Foreign Ministry and said they are listed based on their priority.

“We have prioritized 16 countries, 10 of which are in the Middle East. With the help of the private sector, we’ve opened tourism information offices in all the 16 countries and hope to open more offices in other countries on the list in the coming year.”

Highlighting a major change in ICHHTO’s marketing strategy, he said his organization has started issuing revamped brochures that paint a more realistic picture of Iran.

“Normally you’d see images of adobe structures and cottages plastered all over brochures, which despite being beautiful did not portray Iran as an advanced country. So, over the past two years, we changed the brochures to include modern structures as well.”

  High Investment Potential

Soltanifar noted that despite the country’s economic challenges, which slowed down the progress of many industries over the past several years, the tourism sector has managed to grow since President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013.

“The industry has grown by 12% in the past two years—three times the global average. Local and international investors have taken notice of Iran’s tourism sector, as evidenced by the large number of projects in progress,” he said.

There are roughly 970 projects underway, more than 500 of which are hotel projects worth 300 trillion rials ($8.6 billion).

Hoping to increase the number of hotels in the country as fast as possible, the government has been offering low-interest loans from the National Development Fund of Iran to help complete 50 unfinished hotel projects.

“We’ve set aside 8 trillion rials ($228 million) for the loans and are negotiating with banks to secure more loans for investors to help build more hotels,” he said.

Iran, whose stated goal is to attract 20 million tourists by 2025, has only 1,100 hotels, barely 130 of which are four- and five-star facilities. Experts say the country needs around 400 high quality hotels to accommodate the anticipated influx of foreign tourists.

According to Soltanifar, tourism currently contributes to 6% of Iran’s GDP and meeting the 2025 goal would increase the sector’s contribution to 10%.